Katie Couric is reportedly close to being pushed off the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News after less than two years. Resented by coworkers and aging viewers, regretted by the executives paying her exorbitant salary and ignored by the younger people she was hired to attract, Couric must sometimes miss the days when she was a perky, fearless anchor key to making Today the most profitable program in television history. Back then, the New Yorker called the anchor America's "imaginary friend" while others admired her interviews as surprisingly tough (she once asked Pat Buchanan, "Are you trying to drive the President crazy, or are you just on a big ego trip?") How did America come to hate "America's Sweetheart?"
At the Evening News, Couric is swimming against the tide of history. Old-aged viewers don't like change, and young viewers cannot be lured in to a national news broadcast because they're too busy reading their news online and watching the Daily Show. In fact, the only significant credit Couric has gotten for connecting with young people is when she was in the gossip columns for dating a man 16 years her junior.
Couric is also struggling with a network news budget that was chopped approximately in half over the course of nine years, to about $35 million. Her salary, mind you, is $15 million, and Couric has a taste for expensive enterprise work. "People are pissed about Katie because she's soaking up the money and she's not making any money," one producer told New York magazine last year.
Couric's big-budget ambitions were developed, of course, at Today, which makes around $250 million per year. Her run, which began in 1991 and became the longest in Today show history, was a key part of one of the biggest success stories in television news.
As Ken Auletta wrote in a 2006 New Yorker story, Couric's chipper personality, mocked in her current role, felt fresh and effortless at Today:
[Jeff] Zucker, who was then twenty-six and beginning his own rise at NBC, told people, "Katie's the most natural person I've ever seen in this role." He would hold the camera on her wide, slightly crooked smile, and Couric, for her part, played the role of a regular girl, with a safe pinch of irreverence. She helped loosen up Today, including the sometimes aloof [co-host Bryant] Gumbel. Once, he turned to her and asked whether her daughter slept through the show.
"Only during your interviews!" she replied with a grin.
This video, which shows one of Couric's first appearances on Today and then one of her last, gives a flavor of the times:
Following the death of her husband from colon cancer in 1998, Couric did commendable work raising awareness about the disease. Her live colonoscopy and other segments produced a 20 percent increase in colon cancer screenings dubbed "the Katie Couric Effect."
But the anchor, a newly single mom, then began acting moody and unbalanced, according to Auletta's piece. The Times magazine reported she went through five assistants in five years. This is also when the anchor started wearing short skirts, which became something of a trademark, and a rallying point for detractors, who said she always seemed to find a way to show them off. She was said to be "tone-deaf" to the concerns of coworkers, for example with her late studio arrivals, a charge that would haunt her at CBS, primarily over her spending but also in her jostling with colleagues for interviews.
Finally bored after 15 years at Today, Couric was brought to CBS by Les Moonves, who figured, in typical Holywood executive fashion, that a big personality could turn around his third-place Evening News. She may have had the novelty of being America's first female news anchor, but Couric could not make her signature interviews short enough for nighttime audiences. With producer Rome Hartman she burned through several bad ideas, including guest-commentator segment "freeSpeech" and the too-casual newscast opening, "Hi, everyone."
After an initial ratings initial spike, viewership resumed its decline (as shown in the Wall Street Journal's Nielsen chart at left). Veteran producer Rick Kaplan was brought in to replace Hartman but, by restoring a classic format, has merely leveled out ratings. Worse, his energies are now split with the CBS Early Show. (Around the time Kaplan took over, a different producer was fired over a plagiarized Couric Web post, which proved a minor distraction from the ratings mess.)
Couric can still be fun to watch in a more relaxed context, as shown in an unguarded moment during the New Hampshire primary in January. A young 51, she still has the spunk of the fresh college graduate who broke into journalism by showing up unannounced at network newsrooms. It makes no sense that Couric is wasting her time fighting the inevitable at the Evening News when she can deploy her remaining charm elsewhere, like from behind Larry King's old desk at CNN. Maybe she's finally realized that.